University of Denver hockey is celebrating its 70th season this year. At the same time, though, there’s another, arguably more important milestone that the program is celebrating: voice of the Pioneers Jay Stickney’s 20th year with the program. Through a number of color commentators, three head coaches, and countless student-athletes, one thing has remained constant for the program over the past two decades: Jay Stickney’s voice on Denver’s fall and winter weekend radio airwaves.
Over the past 20 years, Stickney has seen his share of highs, lows, and massive change with the Pioneers and across the sport. Hell, when he first started, Stickney says he didn’t even know the difference in rules between college and the NHL. Quipped Stickney, “When I started, I didn’t know the college hockey rules. [Former DU player and current Altitude TV color commentator] Charlie Host started with me and he was so important those first couple of years. He’d tell me, ‘Jay, no that’s not an icing in college hockey.'”
How did a University of Colorado graduate who didn’t know the difference between icing in college and icing in the NHL outlast one of the sport’s greatest coaches in George Gwozdecky at the best hockey program in the country?
“I was in advertising and media for probably 15 years but at the time I got interviewed [by DU], I was Shagman for Rocky’s Autos,” Stickney said. “At the time, Dennis Miller had started his stint at Monday Night Football and DU said, ‘We want some of that. We want that entertainment’ because look at what you’re competing with in [the Denver] market. So, whenever someone said, ‘man, look at this clown on the radio,’ well, [DU] knew that going in!”
As unique a start at DU as Stickney’s was, it’s impossible to tell his story without recalling the past two decades of DU Hockey history at the same time. Sure, Jay wasn’t actually on the ice, but he was there every single step of the way from the early Gwozdecky days to the back-to-back national titles to the near misses and heartbreaks that spelled the end for Gwoz, and now to DU’s return to the pinnacle in the past five years. Stickney’s story at DU is so intertwined with the story of the Pioneers that anymore, it’s impossible to really tell them apart and, to start the whole thing, Stickney was almost immediately thrown into action with a nationally competitive team.
“My second year [at DU], they were easily the best team in the country,” Stickney recalled of the 2001-2002 Pioneers. “It kind of came out of nowhere because my first year, it was kind of a .500 team, lost in the first round [of the WCHA Tournament] to Wisconsin because this guy named Dany Heatley all of a sudden decided to show up. But in my second year, all of a sudden, [the Pioneers] just got really, really good. Going into the Xcel Energy Center, it was like the first year of that arena, going in there and beating Minnesota in front of 19,000 Minnesota fans, DU beat them pretty soundly. Back then, the national tournament was only 12 teams, so we got a bye but we had to play at the home rink of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and I remember it just being so loud, especially during that third period, when Michigan had like three unanswered goals. That was my first heartbreak because those guys were so good but it just didn’t happen.”
Over the next couple of years, Stickney narrated the Pioneers falling off a bit in 2003, missing the NCAA Tournament after a sweep at the hands of Colorado College in the first round of the WCHA Tournament before they turned it on in 2004 to win the first of two straight national titles.
“In my fourth year, basically that group that were my freshmen, because I looked at it like I was a freshman with them, they were like Animal House meets college hockey,” Stickney recalled. “They were such colorful personalities and then they rode [goalie] Adam Berkhoel to that first national title in 35 years.
“But what people forget about that year is North Dakota just owned us that year. It wasn’t until the very last game that we tied them at The Ralph but before that, they had pumped us at Magness like 7-2 or 8-1 with Zach Parise, Brandon Bochenski, Matt Greene, I mean they were just loaded. And we play them in the regional [in Colorado Springs] and Berkhoel faces a bunch of shots and doesn’t give up a goal. We get a shot from [Luke] Fulghum that was redirected that just went in. At that point, you’re thinking we’re a team of destiny.”
Then, of course, just a year later, Stickney found himself in familiar territory, albeit in Columbus, not Boston, calling his second straight national title game.
“The next year, in Columbus, the bus driver had put on the top a banner saying ‘been there, done that.’ And that’s kind of how it felt! It was all four teams from the WCHA, so it was like we played in the Final Five and then we just kind of played it all over again two weeks later. It’s tough to compare teams but that team, the 2005 team, in terms of the depth, that was probably the best team in that they could really roll four lines.”
With that 2004-2005 team that beat North Dakota first in the Final Five and then again in the national title game, the North Dakota rivalry was beginning to heat up once again and Stickney was there for every second.
“The 04-05 Final Five, it really started with the Paukovich hit,” Stickney said. “Not to downplay the rivalry that had existed for so long before that, but obviously CC was first, and Minnesota and Wisconsin were tough rivals, I mean they had a lot of rivals. But it wasn’t until then, when all of a sudden, when we went into North Dakota the next year and we had to have a police escort, the local radio gave out where Paukovich’s parents were staying, it was just the weirdest stuff. And a couple years later it was Jesse Martin getting hit and the fights on the ice. North Dakota was always the team that would rather win the fight and lose the game. At least the fans were.”
But calling those moments? Those fights? How is a hockey broadcaster, especially on the radio, to describe what’s happening?
“At first, you try to go into your Marv Albert boxing mode,” Stickney joked. “But with back to back seasons when Gwozdecky walked out on the ice and got thrown out, that was some epic drama. For about a 10-year period, that North Dakota-Denver rivalry was truly about as close to a pure hatred as you get.”
As Stickney has witnessed some of the most exciting years in Denver Hockey history, he has also seen a fundamental shift in the sport. As the NHL’s collective bargaining agreements have changed, so too has college hockey. Where teams like the 2003-2004 Pioneers with eight seniors were the norm, now it’s rare to have a national contender with more than a few seniors on the roster. Stickney notes that is a big reason for the widespread taming of some rivalries and, let’s be honest, the new prevalence of the ‘one-and-done’ player was a driving force behind the near misses of Gwozdecky’s teams between 2007 and 2012.
“When you had teams like Yale, Union, American International last year beating an immensely talented St. Cloud State team, or even the year when Ferris State beat St. Cloud to help Denver get to Tampa, that happens, but you see that now, but when I first started, there were 10 or 12 teams where you knew they had a shot at the national title. Now, there are 25 teams where if the puck bounces right, they’re going to win it.”
The other side-effect of the changing collegiate game has been on rivalries not only across the sport but specifically for Denver. There is, perhaps no single person who knows those changes better than Stickney. After all, he lived them.
“CC was so good probably the first 10 years that I did this. And then they had that six-year lull where North Dakota just filled that gap because no matter how the local people would market it, North Dakota was still the bigger series. CC, at least in the last couple seasons has started to show life, they’ve beaten Denver a couple times, and as much as you hate it, it’s good for the sport, it’s good for the state. Playing in Coors Field was great but if it had been 10 years ago, when CC was loaded with All-Americans, that’s a different game and they might have sold out the place. And I had the worst seat in the house for that game. I was behind home plate and I felt like I was Drew Goodman and I’m like, for baseball, this is awesome. But they built the rink in center field. We were calling the game off of an 8-inch iPad for the highlights going, ‘somebody scored!’ The team is somewhere down there.”
Stickney has had a front-row seat to the changes of the game and specifically how Denver has adapted to those changes on the ice in terms of speed and faster players and off the ice with recruiting. The Pioneers have remained at the top thanks in large part to David Carle’s and Jim Montgomery’s recruiting prowess.
“I thought Jim Montgomery and David Carle did a great job of recruiting,” Stickney said. “It wasn’t always about getting the top player. I mean yeah, you’re going to find a superstar like Troy Terry in your backyard or you’re going to go all the way to Finland [to find Henrik Borgström], but the guys you win with, you win with your Evan Janssens, you win with these guys who can play 200 feet of hockey, guys who can win faceoffs, and be good on the penalty kill. And guess what? They’re there for four years.”
Employment as a college hockey program’s play-by-play announcer comes down to much more than saying some words and describing what is happening on the ice in any given game. Sure, that’s part of it, but for Stickney and any other broadcaster worth their salt, learning and understanding the game while getting to know the players and coaches they’re covering are integral parts of the job. Because of that, Stickney has become part of the fabric of Denver Hockey.
And with each new year, his own interests within the program have evolved. “Now the fun part about every new season is I always want to see which guys make the big jump from year to year”, Stickney said. “The big jump is usually from freshman to sophomore year, right? That’s the fun part. Which guy or two or three [will make that jump]?”
20 years into the job, while working full-time as a real estate agent in Denver’s active market, Stickney continues to show why his tenure with the Pioneers has become so valuable to the Pioneers. His entertaining calls, his care for the players and the program, and his consistent voice have given the Pioneers at least one dimension of stability during an era where inconsistency has become the norm.
The University of Denver and Altitude TV will be airing a short piece and interview on Stickney’s 20-year stretch as the voice of the Pioneers during the first intermission of Friday’s game against the St. Cloud State Huskies. Even if you don’t have DirecTV, you can watch it on NCHC.tv.
All audio files provided by University of Denver Athletics